Picture this; It’s ’88 and the emergence of gangster hip hop has all but taken over music and the culture that follows. Artists such as N.W.A., Ice T, Schoolly D, and Too $hort make up a fraction of the recently popularized hip hop niche. We saw this again in the early 2000s; a trend towards rappers becoming “hard” snowballs into a competition of who can out-gangster who. Soon enough, mainstream hip hop is represented by folks such as Soulja Boy or 21 Savage. It’s nearly impossible to succeed in the industry without adopting the sound or biting others’ styles. Still, the entirety of hip hop culture is not all like this.
The Native Tongues saw to it that it wasn’t. The New York based collective, consisting of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Jungle Brothers, assembled in 1989. Their vision was simple. They sought to fill a gap in hip hop for the alternative, anti-gangster rap subculture. These cats could rhyme and were highly intellectual with their platform. Afrocentrism, consciousness, and creative sampling were some of the key features of their music, both collectively and individually. The Native Tongues saw to it that they were comfortable in their own skin and that their fan-base should be too.
This year has seen the rise of bubble gum trap, Future impersonators, and the ever-consistent supply of ignorant gangster rap. Interestingly enough, though, 2016 also has featured a healthy dose of a Native Tongues-like resurgence. Just this year, two-thirds of the collective have released new albums after hiatuses of over 12 and 18 years.
In August, the trio known as De La Soul released their 9th album, …And the Anonymous Nobody. The fully independent release became the second largest funded music project on Kick Starter after raising over $600,000 of crowd-funding. The album debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top Rap Albums. Last weekend the trio performed hits from the album at the BET Obama Celebration; partying with The Roots, Samuel L Jackson, and several other notable individuals in celebration of the soon to be Former President.
The other 2016 Native Tongues album came the Friday before last when A Tribe Called Quest released their 6th and final album, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. The Tribe secretly recorded the album over the past year and released it after the tragic loss of Phife Dawg this March. The album even had verses recorded before his death from Phife himself, a refreshing and beautiful ode to the late emcee. Last weekend, Jarobi and Q-Tip performed two hits from the album on Saturday Night Live with a warm and welcoming response.
However, The Native Tongues’ influence extends beyond the three groups’ music. They are a major antecedent of alternative hip hop the past 25 years, which is as strong as it has ever been right now. The Soulquarians are a direct descendant of The Native Tongues and its members are active and influential contributors to hip hop. Common just dropped a new album, Black America Again. Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, is currently on tour. Erykah Badu recently starred in the film The Land in addition to dropping a mixtape last year. The Roots are killing it as Jimmy Kimmel’s exclusive live band.
Despite the Jungle Brothers being on hiatus since 2006, The Native Tongues have continued to do their thing; that is, inspiring people to be who they are. Hip hop is an art and thus can be interpreted differently. These guys decided to stay real to who they were: nerdy and intellectual guys who have bars. While their counterculture approach to hip hop seems potentially antagonistic, The Native Tongues never saw themselves as better than the mainstream. Instead, they quietly paved the way for an essential facet in hip hop culture.
Now after 27 years of alternative hip hop, the influence of The Native Tongues is as apparent as ever. These old school artists still make music that captures just the right amount of nostalgia with relevant references and applications of their musical eccentricities. Through this formula, The Native Tongues have sealed their legacy in the annals of hip hop.
We are the present., the past and still the future. Bound by friendship, fueled and inspired by what’s at stake. Saviors, heroes? Nah. Just common contributors hopin’ that what we created inspires you the selflessly challenge and contribute. Sincerely, anonymously, nobody.
De La Soul, “Exodus”
Rest in Peace Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor (November 20, 1970 – March 22, 2016)
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